An executive of a team that played the Angels earlier this season found himself watching Albert Pujols and asking himself a monumental question:
Is this the tipping point? Is this the contract that's going to flash across the northern sky every time a general manager or an owner begins to contemplate one of those monster eight- or nine- or 10-year contracts for a guy in his 30s?
On the one hand, he thought, you have a marquee player who is so banged up, he now "looks like a shell of himself." On the other hand, you have the team that waved goodbye to him -- the Cardinals -- sailing along with the best record in baseball, with a first baseman (Allen Craig) whom "they wouldn't trade for Albert, even up, right now."
"I think people will look at that and say, 'I can walk away from my star player,'" the exec said.
Well, it's easy for him to say. But certain players are harder to walk away from than others. You know that. And their teams know that. That's what makes America the beautiful land we live in.
So here are five players whose contract situations we find particularly fascinating -- and where we think those situations are leading. (Just for the record, all Scott Boras clients were automatically exempted from consideration, since 99.99999999 percent of them end the same way -- with players heading for free agency, no matter what their circumstances.)
Cabrera just turned 30 in April. He's universally acknowledged as The Best Hitter on Planet Earth. And he plays for a team (the Tigers) and an owner (Mike Ilitch) who have already bestowed humongous contracts on Prince Fielder (nine years, $214 million) and Justin Verlander (seven years, $180 million). So they have to pay Miggy, too, right?
Hey, sure they do. But pay him what? And when? Tough questions. Remember, Cabrera can't be a free agent until after the 2015 season (at age 32). So this is a trickier contract to figure out than it might look from afar.
"If I represented him," said one veteran agent, "I'd try to negotiate something right now. He's got better leverage at 30 than he'd have if he was trying to go someplace else at 32. I'd be shooting not so much for the years, but for the highest AAV [average annual value] in the game. And I think he could get that."
One friend of Cabrera told Rumblings that there have been enough informal conversations that both sides expect a deal to get done, and possibly sooner than later. But at what length and dollars?
Some executives have speculated something along the lines of three years, $90 million, with a vesting option or two, tacked onto the $44 million he has coming in 2014-15. But a three-year extension would take Cabrera through only age 35, and the guaranteed portion of the Fielder and Verlander deals both carry them through their age-36 season. So it's hard to imagine Cabrera wouldn't dig in for at least a four-year extension, and possibly more.
"I see this as more like five years times $28 [million]," said another exec. "I think he takes the lower AAV to get an extra year or two. In the end, more money."
Either way, the Tigers would be pushing themselves into a dangerous payroll structure, with three players eating up $80 million or so a year. But it's tough to find anyone who believes they could take care of Verlander and Fielder, then suddenly turn around and go hard-line on the Triple Crown winner. So how do they reward him for his greatness while avoiding a Pujols-esque deal that goes too long? As we said -- tricky!
Here's another fun negotiation soap opera. We start with the ultimate back-page plot line -- Cano firing Boras and joining forces with Jay-Z. Now that's a move, as one exec observed, that looks like "a giant olive branch" extended from Cano to the Yankees.
#24 Second Baseman
New York Yankees
But don't kid yourself. This is still a player who, at 30, thinks he's in line for the next 10-year, $200 million contract jackpot. And here at World Rumblings Headquarters, we predict that, in their post-Alex Rodriguez era, the Yankees will never, ever go 10 years again to a player on the wrong side of 30. And maybe not on the right side of 30, either.
What Cano has going for him: He's the most productive second baseman in baseball, at a position with fewer and fewer offensive forces. And he's the only real marquee name on this lineup card who is younger than -- what? -- 33? So as the Yankees think about transitioning to their next generation, how can they transition without him?
But … here's what he doesn't have going for him: As productive and talented as he might be, as wide a smile as he might flash, is he really the definition of a man you build a team around? Amazing how many people in the game aren't sure he is.
"Is Robinson Cano your true premier superstar?" asked an exec of one club. "I'll tell you the truth. We talk all the time in here about who are the top 10 players in baseball. He's never on the list."
So you'd think there's a seven-year or eight-year package out there that could work, at somewhere between $150 million to $175 million. But Cano will press for more. We'd bet the Yankees will hold firm. And then it comes down to this: Would Robinson Cano really walk out this door?
"No future Yankees Hall of Famer has ever left the Yankees in the history of the franchise," one exec insisted. "I honestly can't think of anyone. So I'm sure he wants to stay. I'm sure he wants his name in Monument Park. I just think he has to end up back there. I can't imagine him leaving."
Kershaw is another guy who seems to have his employers right where he wants them. On an underperforming team, surrounded by four teammates already working on nine-figure contracts, how do they not pay him -- the one star attraction who always lives up to his billing?
He's 25. He's the best pitcher in baseball. He's a year and change from free agency. So what's the scenario where the Dodgers let Clayton Kershaw leave?
"I don't think they can lose this guy," said one AL executive, speaking for, well, the rest of the human race.
The scuttlebutt out there is that Kershaw is looking for the first 10-year contract landed by any pitcher since the legendary Wayne Garland got 10 years, $2.3 million (total) from the Indians, back in 1977. Just at, um, slightly higher rates.
Well, you'd need to sip many glasses of cabernet to believe Kershaw winds up with 10 years guaranteed. But almost anything else seems feasible. Anything.
"He's not leaving L.A.," said one exec. "That's not going to happen. There's literally a one-half of one-percent chance he walks away. I could see him getting seven years, $200-210 million, something like that. And the only reason I could ever see him taking less is, he's a pitcher. I'm sure he's already got $200 million on the table. I don't know how he can go out to the mound and throw a ball with $200 million on the table. If I were his agent, I'd say, 'Let's wrap this up in the next two weeks,' just because anytime a pitcher throws a pitch, you never know what might happen."
A funny thing happened to Trout after his epic rookie season: The Angels actually renewed his contract this spring (at $510,000) because they couldn't even settle on his value in a one-year deal. (From all accounts, in fact, they never even came close.)
So that sums up the big problem here: Who's a comparable player, when we're talking contract value, to Mike Trout? Not just now. Ever.
#27 Center Fielder
Los Angeles Angels
"I think there's one guy who's a comparable -- Buster Posey," said an AL exec. "Posey got nine years, $167 million. If I'm the Angels, I try to lock him up right now. Give him the Buster Posey deal."
From the outside looking in, not a bad theory. But here's the trouble with it: Trout would hit free agency at 26 years old. And in between, he's in line for one monster arbitration payout after another if he's just willing to go year-to-year. So …
Folks around the game look at him, look at his future and look at what happened when the Angels even tried to work out a one-year contract, and predict: This guy is not signing. He's not going to give away any free-agent years. And he might not see the upside in even a three-year deal that could, potentially, discount his arbitration years.
"I don't know how they get him signed," said one exec. "It's hard to even put a number on what he's worth."
And then there's Manny. When his name came up in this conversation, one AL exec's first reaction was: "If I'm the Orioles, I'd wait a year. He's not Mike Trout."
Yeah, but he sure is close. As MASN's Steve Melewski wrote last month, over the first 84 games of Machado's career, he actually beat both Trout and Bryce Harper in home runs, batting average, doubles and RBIs at the same juncture. And even now, after 111 games, he still owns a better slash line than Harper at the same stage, and he's not real far behind Trout. Machado is also a spectacular defender with remarkable baseball instincts. And he's only 20 years old.
#13 Third Baseman
But let's stay out of the who's-the-best-phenom debate for now, because the real reason to compare Machado with Trout is this: They're two incredible young players who are almost impossible to fit with their own realistic price tag.
"What would an extension for him even look like?" one exec asked about Machado. "With a player like this, who can be a free agent at 26 or 27, why would he ever give up a free-agent year? Those are the guys who get $200 million contracts [when they hit free agency]. So with Trout, with Harper, with Machado, I don't know why those guys would ever do an extension."
Orioles owner Peter Angelos also has a history of being extremely wary of long, hefty deals to players who haven't hit their arbitration years. So for the time being, Manny will just have to keep on being Manny. But sooner or later, his cash register will be ringing. It just won't happen until he's old enough to be able to purchase that bottle of Moet Chandon he'll need to celebrate it.
Ready to Rumble
• Here's Rumblings' nomination for the first starting pitcher traded this summer: Ricky Nolasco.
The Marlins have Nate Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez nearing a return from the disabled list. So it's feasible that Nolasco could be dealt weeks before the trading deadline, with the Orioles and Yankees leading the parade of teams that already have interest. A throng of scouts watched Nolasco shut down the Phillies on Tuesday. Here's a review from one of them:
"I think he'd be a great addition for somebody, as a No. 3 or 4 [starter]. He's very similar to what Anibal Sanchez was last year. He's not a 1 or a 2. But he's a veteran guy who can go out and spin seven innings, and do it, I think, for a contending team."
• Here's another player whose contract situation we find verrrry interesting, even though he didn't make our top five cut: A.J. Burnett.
Who knew Pittsburgh would be such a great fit? The Pirates love A.J. And he loves them. So on one hand, it seems logical they'd find a way to keep him around. But hold on. He's five months from free agency. And he's leading the league in both strikeouts and strikeout ratio. So even though he's 36, he'll be a hot attraction this winter if he keeps those whiffs coming.
Burnett has been collecting $16.5 million a year since 2009, but the Yankees are paying $8.5 million of that this year -- "and I'm pretty sure that in his next contract, the Yankees won't be paying half of it," laughed one NL exec. So is there any shot Burnett stays in Pittsburgh? Never say never. But with Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon on the way, this feels like last year's Kyle Lohse-in-St. Louis saga all over again.
• Folks who have spoken with the Royals' brass have come away with the universal impression that the hiring of George Brett as hitting coach is not the prelude to any other changes -- managerial or otherwise. For now, anyway. Royals GM Dayton Moore has never viewed Ned Yost as The Problem. So any speculation otherwise is just the usual baloney that swells up around teams playing like this.
The real upset is that Brett agreed to take the job, after turning it down multiple times over multiple years. So what happened? "Pretty simple," one friend of Brett told Rumblings. "George just finally got as frustrated as everybody else."
• Who knows where the Biogenesis storyline goes from here. And who knows what it means for the Yankees' favorite third baseman in exile, Alex Rodriguez. But one NL executive perfectly summed up the difference between how the Yankees look at their prime Biogenesis suspect, versus how all other teams are eyeing this looming thunderclap.
"You have something like 15 teams praying this thing doesn't affect them," he said, "and one team praying it does. Don't the Yankees have to be saying, 'Oh my god, if this guy gets a 100-game suspension, it can save us like 20 million bucks?'" Well, it's more like $15 million, but you get the idea.
• One more A-Rod question: Say the Yankees wind up releasing him and he's still determined to play. Would any team sign him, even at the minimum salary? Before you say no, remember that Manny Ramirez got two free-agent contracts, with the Rays and A's, after his own escapades with the drug-suspension police.
"No chance," said one executive we surveyed about A-Rod. "I couldn't see anyone taking that shot. That juice isn't worth squeezing anymore."
• Now contrast that widespread A-Rod sentiment with the way people look at one of the central figures in the BALCO mess, Jason Giambi. His days as a star are deep in the rearview mirror. But Giambi's reputation as a team-building clubhouse presence is so stellar, the Rockies gave him a managerial interview last winter, even though he hadn't retired as a player yet.
"I've never had a guy like this," his manager in Cleveland, Terry Francona, told Rumblings. "He's like a walking manager in the clubhouse. People talk about how you need a veteran guy like this for your young players. Heck, with him, it's every player. There's not a player in that [locker] room he can't talk to -- and who isn't really happy to see him coming over. He's been so much help to me in this job, I can't even describe it."
• Clubs that have asked the Marlins about Giancarlo Stanton continue to report they have shown no interest in dealing him in midseason. But among the unexpected forces that could push them toward trading Stanton this winter is that his injury accelerated the development of imposing 22-year-old phenom Marcell Ozuna, whom one scout went so far as to describe as "Yasiel Puig, minus the hype."
Ozuna (.326/.370/.473 after 34 games) had played just 24 games above A-ball, and zero games in Triple-A, when the Marlins called him up. But he has the look of a major talent -- who could push Stanton right out of Miami next winter. And his hitting coach, Tino Martinez, says Ozuna's growth as a hitter, just over the course of a few weeks, has been eye-opening.
"When he first came up, if he got into a 3-1 count or 3-2, you could throw a pitch anywhere -- in the dirt, a foot outside -- and he'd still swing at it," Martinez said. "But you tell this kid something, he gets it. About 2½ weeks ago, we talked before his first at-bat about looking for a pitch he could drive. Instead, he swings at a pitcher's pitch, rolls it over to the shortstop and comes in and says, 'How did I do?' I said, 'Terrible,' although I might have used some other words than 'terrible.' I said, 'I told you to look for a ball to drive.' He listened, and it was like, from that moment on, that was it. He's been a totally different player. That's not coaching. That's listening."
Over his next 20 games, Ozuna hit .360, with a .914 OPS, and reached base in all 20. In a couple of weeks, the Marlins will be running out an outfield of Ozuna, Stanton and the dazzling Christian Yelich. So their second half should be a lot more interesting to watch than the first half.
• Finally, remember the story, first reported by ESPN New York's Adam Rubin, back in spring training, that baseball owners were working on a controversial plan to allow teams to opt out of offering baseball's pension plan to scouts and other employees who don't happen to wear major league uniforms? That proposal drew so much furor, it's now on hold -- indefinitely.
Instead of voting on it at last month's owners meetings, the commissioner's office just offered a quick update and moved on, sources said. And several sources said they don't see this springing back to life anytime soon.
The last thing Bud Selig needs, as he approaches the end of his tenure and we begin to assess his legacy, is to give the impression his sport doesn't care about the little people in his game. And if he'd allowed owners to kill pensions in an $8 billion industry, that's exactly how this would have looked.
Astounding Fact of the Week
We're not sure why anyone bothered bringing a radar gun to that magical matchup Wednesday between those two noted fireballers, R.A. Dickey and Barry Zito. But since the folks from Pitch F/x showed up, here's what they got out of that duel:
Zero pitches clocked at 85 miles per hour or higher. … 135 pitches clocked at under 80 miles per hour (96 of them by Dickey) … 12 pitches that never even made it up there at 70 mph … and one very special eephus-ball, from Dickey to Buster Posey, that put a big "61" up there on the radar board.
So naturally, we ran those numbers by our friends at Baseball Info Solutions and learned: Those 135 pitches under 80 mph were the most in a game since … eh, two weeks ago, when Dickey and Freddy Garcia combined to deliver 156 pitches under 80. And this was the 24th game in the past 10 seasons with that many pitches in the 70s and below. Twenty of those games were started by a knuckleballer. The other four? Started by Jamie Moyer. Of course. You were expecting maybe Justin Verlander?
Tweets of the Week
As the legend of Braves rookie Evan Gattis grows, so does the burgeoning popularity of the Twitter feed that chronicles his heroics -- @GattisFacts. A sampling:
Evan Gattis doesn't have windows at his house. He already knows what's going on outside. #GattisFacts
— Gattis Facts (@GattisFacts) June 6, 2013
Evan Gattis can breathe........while holding his breath. #GattisFacts
— Gattis Facts (@GattisFacts) June 6, 2013
If Evan Gattis were President, he would protect the secret service. #GattisFacts
— Gattis Facts (@GattisFacts) May 31, 2013
Everyone's favorite since it all started: Evan Gattis doesn't turn on the shower, he looks at it until it cries. #GattisFacts
— Gattis Facts (@GattisFacts) May 22, 2013
Quip of the Week
From David Letterman, on the return of the cicadas to North America, after 17 years:
"They haven't been here in 17 years. They got to New York City. They flew over the Bronx. They saw Yankee Stadium. And the first thing they said, the cicadas -- Did I tell you they talk? -- over Yankee Stadium was, 'Wow, Mariano Rivera is still pitching?'"